My newest son-in-law, who is military, gave me a book to read for Father’s Day. It’s a best-selling novel entitled Lone Survivor (2007). Given the circumstances I decided to read it right through. Turns out it is the dramatic story of a covert Navy SEAL operation into the mountains of Afghanistan, via a nighttime helicopter drop, to take out a particularly dangerous Taliban leader. More to the point, it’s the story of how the whole thing went horribly bad. The narrative is provided by Marcus Luttrell, the only survivor—his survival itself something of a miracle. There’s a moral to the story.
The story is full of real, bullet-flying drama once the tiny combat team is, by an incredibly unlucky coincidence, discovered by hundreds of Taliban fighters. Subsequently, under a relentless rain of rockets and gunfire, and without radio contact to air support, the pinned-down but courageous Americans are progressively injured, killed, or compelled to jump off cliffs and fall down mountainsides as their last resort.
The only thing that saves the lone survivor, finally staggered by horrendous wounds and almost unconscious, is a small Pashtun mountain community that decides to provide protective custody against the menacing Taliban who lie in wait all around. The villagers and their leaders choose bravely to apply an ancient cultural value of hospitality to the wounded American, even though it places their own village and its people at risk.
The lone survivor has nothing good to say about the Taliban, but he goes out of his way to say a lot of good things about some of the Pashtun tribal folk, who have made the mountainous region between Afghanistan and Pakistan their homeland for centuries, and who today provide the main supply of recruits for the Taliban. They are a people prone to the lows of fanaticism and capable of the heights of grace.
It’s a reminder that people are rarely totally good or completely bad. They are, in other words, a lot like us. Centuries ago the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: “It is dangerous to show man too clearly how much he resembles the beast, without at the same time showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to allow too clear a vision of his greatness without his baseness. It is even more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both.” In the language of theology, we are all divine image-bearers who sin. In the slang of pop culture, we are all mixed bags.
So what’s my point? It’s simply this. We should resist the temptation to make “totalizing generalizations” about people who do bad things, or who do things that irritate or even hurt us. After all, you’ve never met a total jerk.
Such an adjustment in perspective really matters. The reason this matters is that no one is so bad that we should cut him or her off altogether. For me, this goes for the family around the corner who let their dog loose so that it bit one of ours. It goes for the guy next door whose backyard party lasted until about 3 in the morning last week. I could decide never to speak to either of them again, but such a response is not warranted. These neighbors screwed up—definitely—but so do I on occasion, because people are mixed bags. I can only keep cutting off these other people if I pretend that I’m better than them. The key to extending civility to others is being able to recognize that they’re not all bad, and I’m certainly not all good.
This came home to me recently in a church I visited. Even though we live in the twenty-first century, and intelligent women are avoiding organized Christianity in droves, the minister of this particular congregation still seems to enjoy referring to humanity as “man,” and assuring the congregants that a man is justified by faith alone, etc. etc. If this were Iraq, I’d be tempted to throw a shoe at the pulpit. The minister badly mangles the English language too. His brutalization of words and grammar is both distracting and the cause of needless suffering. I am sure some grip the pew to keep from walking out.
But guess what? Despite these liabilities I felt I heard truth in the sexist, English-butcher’s sermon. It was a faithful reflection of the meaning of the Bible and it fit with what I know of life. It resonated deep in my spirit in the old familiar way I have come to recognize as God speaking to me.
This really impressed me. Not only are people not all bad, but evidently God actually sets the bar generously low when it comes to whom he will use to speak healthiness into our souls. Even seriously flawed people can be used to help shed light and grace. I’m not celebrating dysfunction; I’m merely pointing out the divine generosity that seems to be operating in the midst of all of this.
So . . . I’m going to try to stop demonizing difficult people and cutting them off altogether as though they are total rejects. The last thing I ought to do is behave more exclusively than God does. Besides, community is built on the premise that we recognize a bit of ourselves in others, and cut everybody a bit of slack all round. That’s true in Afghanistan and here at home as well.